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Church, Society, and Religious Change in France, 1580-1730.

CHURCH, SOCIETY, AND RELIGIOUS CHANGE IN FRANCE, 1580-1730. By Joseph Bergin. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, 2009. Pp. xvii + 506. $55.

Bergin's study, impressive in size and learning, is the product of a career spent studying 17th-century French Catholicism. After a prologue that explains why he included or excluded certain topics, individual chapters delve into specific topics that pivot around issues of ecclesial change or reform. Chapter 1 examines the demographics of the French Church, especially the enormous variation in the sizes of dioceses and the number of parishes in each. According to B., efforts to unite smaller dioceses or divide larger ones floundered in the face of local opposition. B. then moves to another area needing change, despite the fact that then-current practices hampered reform: the Church's wealth and revenues. B. rightly states that "tithe and trouble were synonymous" (42). He displays the complex relationship among wealth, benefices, and the clergy, though he might have provided a broader discussion of tithe-collecting, including how the practice of using secular collection agents upset the peasantry. He concludes that the system of benefices "set genuine structural limits to reform" (58).

The heart of the work lies in the section on France's "Clerical Worlds." Here B. first treats the secular clergy--the clerical group most needing reform--and he finds that the 17th-century Church elevated the ordinary priest to a plane virtually equal to that of the monastically vowed, achieving this by rigorously enforcing celibacy and instituting minimum standards for ordination, thereby reducing the large number of clerics who remained in minor orders or went unbeneficed. The Church also established new seminaries, but B. concludes that these were too few to play a major role in transforming the secular clergy. No one, however, thought to eliminate the system of benefices--benefices that allowed clerics to lead reasonably secure lives, but also retained a persistent corrupting element in clerical life.

Religious orders, B. notes, experienced a dramatic increase in houses and membership. Most of the increase took place in the new orders or, more properly, new congregations. Equally dramatic was the increased practice of commende, where the office of the traditional monastic abbot was given to a nonmonastic cleric. B. judges that commendatory abbots did not always ignore reform, but that the practice reduced the number of monks who rose to positions of church authority. B. also traces how several new female orders avoided cloister, which allowed them to serve as teachers and nurses.

B. then takes up the "Instruments of Religious Change," focused on agents of spirituality. He portrays the role of saints and shrines as providing opportunity for religious instruction of the faithful, while they reduced expectations for miracles. B. devotes a chapter to changing perception and practice of each of the seven sacraments.

The final section, "Movers and Shakers," looks at the confraternities, the devots, and the Jansenists. B. agrees with Gabriel LeBras that the 17th century was the second great age of the confraternity, despite clerical efforts to reduce their influence. His discussion of the devots centers on the Company of the Holy Sacrament, founded to encourage charity, religious devotion, and virtuous lives. Its success, including increased political clout, led to the 1666 royal order to disband it. The Jansenists posed an even greater threat but, unlike the Company, they refused to concede anything and did not go quietly. B. argues that the conflicts the Jansenists engendered have overshadowed the impact of the neo-Augustinian revival of which Jansenism was only one aspect.

Several points of B.'s study could use amplification. He frequently mentions in passing the political problems of the Jesuits in France but gives little information on what they were. The Huguenots hover like a specter over the pages, but with little on how the Catholic Church dealt with them. The author concludes that "France had built a religious culture that increasingly appealed to the Catholic elites of Europe" (430), but he understates the Italian influence on that culture for the half century after 1580. Finally, while the title indicates that the book covers the decades before and after, B.'s focus is firmly on the 17th century. Consequently there are a number of points pre-1600 and post-1700 on which the author might have spent more time, and a glossary of terms used in French Catholicism would have been helpful. But none of this detracts from what is a masterful examination of 17th-century French Catholicism. B.'s book is sure to remain the standard work on French Catholicism in the 17th century for a long time to come.


Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg
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Author:Baumgartner, Frederic J.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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